Sports-Venue Acoustics and Systems: The Second Round

Like painting the Golden Gate Bridge, building out the infrastructure of major-league sports seems like a never-ending job. That might be the case now that we’re nearing the end of the most momentous sports-venue build-out since the chariot races. Once the new Florida Marlins stadium in Miami opens for the 2012 MLB season, most of the major-league sports venues in the U.S. will have been built or extensively renovated in the past decade and a half. Now it’s time to go back and put some fresh paint — or audio systems — on them.

“The conversation has started” on that topic, says Jim Faber, senior associate at Wrightson, Johnson, Haddon & Williams (WJHW), which was an audio-systems and acoustics consultant on many of the largest new stadiums, including the New Meadowlands Stadium and Cowboys Stadium.

The facilities getting audio upgrades range far and wide. At the Milwaukee Brewers’ Miller Park, JBL 5000 Series loudspeakers were installed in longer throw positions. The Texas Rangers’ Arlington Stadium, where WJHW replaced 12-year-old speakers further weakened by recent rain and snow in the Dallas area. And, at the Atlanta Falcons’ Georgia Dome, built in 1992 and a charter member of the construction-boom generation, the horn and woofer clusters have been replaced with JBL VLA line arrays.

“A number of the stadiums out there are starting to get long in the tooth,” observes Mark Graham, a WJHW associate who specializes in audio-system design. “Loudspeakers are motors. They’re mechanical, and they are subject to fatigue and wear and tear from the elements over time.”

One of the big differences this time, Faber says, is that those working on sound won’t be dealing as much with architects as with the venue owners themselves. Since most of this next round will be upgrades to existing stadiums, including many of those built during the boom years that kicked off with Camden Yards in Baltimore in 1992, considered by many to be the Big Bang of the modern sports-stadium era (despite being a prime example of a retro-classic design). Faber expects that this will result in more partnering between consultant and integration companies, instead of both acting as subcontractors to architects as in the past.

“The challenge this time around is going to be looking at sound systems as part of a larger, IT-based proposition, rather than as separate systems,” says Faber. He expects audio, video, and data to migrate to Ethernet-based networks within the stadium and to interface with the broadcast signals that leave the stadium as the outside broadcast-truck infrastructure moves to a network model.

“Instead of what kind of signals we’ll need to work with,” he says, “we’ll be asking what kind of traffic will be on the network, how wide the lanes need to be to accommodate it, and what kinds of switching it’ll need.”

The more recent trend toward multilevel architectural design has driven increased implementation of distributed sound systems in sports stadiums. Venues constructed toward the beginning of the stadium boom often still were based on the older point-source design, and their owners are looking longingly at the newer designs.

But even more-recent facilities have to continue to upgrade to meet the “audience expectation” at sports venues, according to Ted Leamy, COO at Pro Media/Ultrasound, which installed the sound systems in New Meadowlands and Cowboys Stadium. AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants and opened in 1999, has a distributed sound system but upgraded its audio DSP systems last year and plans to add a digital mix console for the house sound sometime this year.

“There are the big, sweeping upgrades, like Green Bay is looking to for its stadium, which is adding a closed end zone,” says Leamy, “and then there’s the incremental upgrades that digital lets you do, like the DSP and the console at AT&T.”

Stadiums that installed in sound systems a dozen years ago with the goal of high speech intelligibility are now realizing that, given increased emphasis on music played in the parks, they need to expand the frequency response of their installed sound systems. “It can be a bit of an arms race,” he says, “but there is a lot of potential in relatively recent stadiums to upgrade sound systems rather than start from scratch.”

While the U.S. goes into an extended round of upgrades, WJHW’s Faber believes that the rest of the world is still largely on its first go-round, with the Olympics driving massive new stadiums in Russia and Brazil.

“They’re all looking for the ‘western solution,’ as they call it,” he says, referring to such system-design developments as convergent networks and extensive use of distributed audio systems that help ensure sync with large video displays. “That’s going to be a whole other conversation.”

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